More Than Bait – Targeting Fall Panfish with Purpose

As a catfish aficionado, I have one rule: use the freshest bait possible. Through this continual quest for fresh bait, I’ve become intimately familiar with sunfish haunts and habits. This familiarity has led to a greater appreciation of all panfish. Although my techniques came from targeting sunfish, they apply to crappies and perch as well. Where I once caught panfish as a bait gathering pursuit, I now find myself targeting them for catch and release fishing too.

Trolling is an efficient way locate and catch panfish. Double, triple and even quadruple hook ups are common once you find a school.

Summer is gone. The swarms of bluegills, crappies, and other panfish that line the banks of slower rivers have scattered and I now look to the lakes for my autumn action. Whether it’s a bait run, or just a fun run, I’ll spend my time on the still waters. This is where I find the most consistent catches.

Finding suspended fish relating to cover is the key to success. The schools are not in the cover; just relating to it. Sure you may find some fish in thick weeds, or out over open water, but you will find bigger fish in better supply riding that line between the two. It’s almost like they don’t want to leave their summer homes behind.

Use three presentations for fall panfish. Trolling small crankbaits is the most efficient approach. Use this approach if you don’t know exactly where the fish are holding. You can cover more ground and comb the water with multiple baits. A slow and steady troll at 0.5 to 1.5 MPH will find the fish and draw the strikes.

A nose-heavy fly like a Clouser Minnow is a deadly weapon for bull bluegills.

Once you have the location dialed in, or when shore fishing, try the float & jig technique. A Trout Magnet or other micro plastic measuring no more than an inch long on a 1/64 oz. jighead will catch fish of all sizes. When specifically targeting larger specimens upsize to a 2” to 3” bait like the 2.8” Fishbelly Hawg Shad. Rig these plastics on a 1/64 to 1/16 oz. jighead, using the lightest that the depth and wind will allow.

No matter the lure size, work it the same. Cast to your target. Let the lure sink and settle. Then, move it in short pulls or twitches. Vary the time between movements depending on the activity level of the fish. The lure will dart forward and up, then pendulum downward. Crappies and sunfish love that subtle action. If you move it too much, you will start catching more bass than panfish. That’s not such a bad thing.

A spinoff of the float & jig technique can be done with a flyrod. Use a floating line and a fly with a weighted head, like a Clouser Minnow. Retrieve the fly with strips and pauses. It will dart forward and upward, then glide downward. That pendulum movement rings the dinner bell.

Whether you target them for the table, for bait, or just for fun, panfish are a great option for the fall. Good luck!